Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf is a challenging turn-based tactics game with some card game elements thrown in for good measure. It initially released for mobile platforms only, but has recently made its way to Steam Early Access as well. And don't worry, all of the pesky microtransaction nonsense has been sheared away.
Unfortunately, much like the majority of Warhammer 40,000 games out there Space Wolf is a mixed bag that will simultaneously excite and frustrate you. So if you're wondering whether this is the type of game you might enjoy, allow me to share my thoughts on what I've seen so far and you can hopefully decide from there.
Being at the wrong end of a Heavy Flamer is not the most pleasant of experiences
If you've ever tried the modern XCOM games odds are you know exactly what Space Wolf plays like. You control medium-sized groups of infantry, each with their own unique skills and weapons, which you can then use to take down hordes of Chaos Space Marines that lay between you and the main objective. There are also some side-objectives that don't involve as much bloodshed, but since these are the Space Wolves we're talking about I wouldn't get your hopes up about peaceful solutions.
Once you start getting into the mechanics themselves, however, the similarities quickly end. Instead of giving you access to a pre-set number of abilities and items, Space Wolf uses a fully customizable 30-card deck in order to dictate what your characters can and can't do. Bolters, Plasma Guns, Sniper Rifles, Lighting Axes, Thunder Hammers - all of the classic Warhammer 40,000 weapons are represented through these cards, and each one of them brings with it a different set of pros and cons. The melee weapons require you to walk up to your enemies, but compensate with insanely high damage. 'Small' caliber Bolters do comparatively low damage, but the increased mobility they provide is represented in-game via card draw. Sniper Rifles on the other hand do incredible damage from long range, though they will significantly slow down the hero using them, so they're not as overpowered as they sound.
A well stocked armory is a Space Marine's paradise
Since you can only draw so many cards per turn it is important to decide which ones you are going to use, and when. For example, if you're fighting against one Chaos Space Marine that is near death's door, why waste your super powerful Rocket Launcher when you can just finish him with a weak attack that also draws a card. These sort of decisions don't sound difficult right now, but after a lengthy series of battles you are going to start getting short on both health and cards, and it is then that Space Wolf becomes a truly harrowing experience! Its not easy to complete some of the lengthier missions with all of your squad members alive, which while harsh is a perfect fit for the grim darkness of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.
Besides using your cards to blast a hole in the enemy's skull, you also have to use them in order to move your characters. You can do this in two ways: use dedicated movement cards that keep your initiative high, or sacrifice one of your damaging cards in order to move at the expense of your initiative. When you combine this with the fact that your characters cannot turn without moving you get a combat system that requires a great deal of thought before you do any sort of action. This is both amazing and terrible the same time.
On one hand I love the fact that flanking is powerful not because of extra damage, but because of the fact that your enemy has to expend a card in order to turn around. This adds a whole new level to squad based tactics, and most importantly, it makes melee playstyles less suicidal as your enemies can't instantly turn around and blast you twice in the face. On the other hand, this makes movement incredibly tedious. Even when you've killed all of your enemies you still need to burn through your cards in order to move around, and while your deck will never deplete this becomes increasingly tiresome on some of the larger maps. Instead of going from battle to battle almost instantly you can spend upwards of 2-3 minutes simply moving your soldiers forward, which is not exactly my definition of fun.
At least the Chaos forces seem to be having lots of fun because they sure do like striking poses before attacking
Do you remember how annoying it is in XCOM when you move slightly forward and then trigger an enemy spawn you couldn't possibly know about, only for them to get a free turn to beat you up? Well, Space Wolf has that same problem, but instead of it being punishment from the god of randomness it is the developers themselves that have created these ambushes for you. So if you move slightly too fast, in a movement system that is already incredibly slow, you can get 4 high-health enemies spawned right on top of you! Since movement lowers your initiative the newly spawned enemies usually get to have their say first, which most of the time results in your lead character losing 1/3 of his HP due to nonsense outside of your control.
This little 'feature' also makes melee weapons completely unusable garbage, because you never know when simply moving two boxes forward will result in 5 more enemies spawning all around you! So if you were hoping to use Thunder Axes and Chainswords I'm afraid you're better off saving those for your second playthrough, because if you don't know all of the enemy spawn triggers you're going to get yourself killed extremely quickly. While I like the general idea behind Space Wolf, it is this constant uncertainty that has completely killed my interest in finishing the campaign. If you can't rely on tactics in a turn-based tactics game, then what's the damn point?
Take a wrong step and you might just get an entire squad of Chaos Space Marines breathing down your neck
Unfortunately the problems don't stop there as the second in command aboard the USS Tedium is the enemy AI. To Space Wolf's credit the AI is genuinely good and will often target your most exposed squad members first, but it does so incredibly slowly. When you're fighting against eight enemies, each of which gets two actions during their turn, you can spend well over a minute simply watching the same few animations repeat over and over again. On the other hand, you can get through your entire turn within 20 seconds if you already have a plan in mind, so I hope you now see why this is such a problem. Space Wolf is still in Early Access, so this can be fixed with a simple "speed everything up" button, and I truly hope the developers do just that because otherwise you're going to spend more time waiting than playing.
To bring things back into a positive direction allow me say that the presentation is pretty damn good, especially for what was once a mobile game. Both your squad members and the enemy Chaos Space Marines look like they belong in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, and their models are decently detailed despite the somewhat low-resolution textures. Most of the sounds are also spot on, and some of the animations are actually quite awesome to watch, especially when the 'cinematic slow-mo' kicks in. The only issue I have with the presentation is repetition. Each weapon type has only one attack animation, so after you've seen it a dozen times it starts becoming fairly stale. I would like it if each weapon had at least 2-3 extra animations that constantly rotated, just to keep things fresh and each kill at least slightly unique.
The kill cams are so over-the-top they're amazing, but there needs to be more of them
Once you complete a mission you will be granted upgrade points, cards, card packs, and materials with which you can craft cards directly. It is obvious all of this was once part of a microtransaction system, but thankfully you get enough cards and materials thrown at you to not have to worry about playing with a subpar deck. You will have some deck-building limitations, especially since the cards can be upgraded by fusing duplicates, but throughout my playthrough I never felt like I was being held back by my deck.
As for the upgrade points, you can use these to either slightly enhance your squad members, or to further specialize your main character in one of three playstyles: Scout, Power Armor, or Terminator Armor. Each one is equally viable, and they all share a rather large pool of cards, so feel free to mess around with all three if you so wish. That said, I would heavily recommend against a melee build simply because the mission ends if your commander dies, and I hope I don't need to repeat how suicidal melee is in Space Wolf. Other than that little 'limitation' you are free to do whatever you want with your characters, and that level of freedom is something I can certainly appreciate in a tactics game.
Warhammer 40,000: Space Wolf is currently standing on the cliff's edge. If it takes a step backwards I could easily see it becoming a truly enjoyable, albeit incredibly difficult strategy game. On the other hand, if Space Wolf continues in its current direction its going to stumble down the cliff into the realm of mediocrity and annoyance. There is actual potential for greatness here, but whether or not the developers will manage to achieve it is going to be the big question moving forward.
As it stands right now, however, I simply cannot recommend Space Wolf to anyone but the most diehard of Warhammer 40,000 fans. The gameplay is solid, there is no doubt about that, but Space Wolf has so many frustrating design choices that playing it feels like work, not relaxation. Space Wolf might not be the best of games right now, but I would still recommend keeping an eye of it over the next few months as there is a definite chance things can improve for the better, much better!